9 November 2006

Riding High

Our 1978 911 SC is a perfect case in point. Relatively pampered, in mostly original paint and with 177,000 miles on it when it joined our stable last year, it rode low and had an appealing “boy racer” look.

It also had a rock-hard ride that was so uncomfortable I simply stopped driving the car. I assumed that all SCs rode this way, and that to make the ride more reasonable, I should follow our Porsche analyst Jim Schrager’s advice and switch to 15” wheels, which were the stock choice in Europe. Fake Fuchs wheels were fine with me; after all, I would rather ride around on replica wheels in relative comfort than not drive the SC at all.

The response from our Porsche gang was immediate and visceral. SCM’s legal analyst, John Draneas, who is also the head of the Porsche Parade annual convention, which is being held in Portland this year, said, “If you’re going to ride around on fake wheels, why don’t you just get a Beck Spyder and go the whole replica route?”

Pete Zimmerman, author of The Used 911 Story, was equally emphatic. “I would never trade comfort for handling. Don’t change the wheels. What’s the point in owing a Porsche?”

The point was simple. I wanted a car I could drive. And I didn’t care if it took joining the fake-wheel-weenie group to get it. However, it turned out that upgrading, or more appropriately downgrading, to 15” wheels and tires, fake or real, wasn’t going to be cheap. Mounted, balanced, and installed wheels and tires were going to set me back around $2,000, enough to make me wonder if putting a pillow on my seat wasn’t a better solution.

But things came into focus after I drove Draneas’s SC. Its ride quality was delightful. After driving mine, he declared it “stupid.”

We dropped the car off at our local Porsche shop, A&P Specialties, where it was diagnosed as having been excessively lowered, which, combined with four dead shocks, led to the suspension bottoming out over anything taller than a tar strip.

A&P raised the SC to European ride-height specs provided by Zimmerman, with about 1/2” clearance between the top of the tire and the rear wheel arch. The suspension bushings were inspected and declared good, and new stock Bilsteins were installed all around. Of course, not being able to avoid a chance to spend extra money, i.e. “upgrade,” I had a set of used 1984 Carrera sway bars installed.

Yes, the car has lost some of its low-slung “dachshund on the prowl” look, but its ride has dramatically improved. And I now understand why Porsche fanatics hold the SC in such esteem—it has enough horsepower, it sticks well, and the a/c even blows cold. SCM’s total cost for repairs and upgrades was under $2,000, less than the cost of replacing the wheels. Since I still have the stock 16” wheels, Draneas says I won’t have to park with the Intermeccanica Speedsters at the Parade.

In the end, all we did was return the SC to the ride height and shock absorber setup it had when it left the factory. And all it took to figure all this out was a short ride in a stock SC—something I should have done at the beginning of this whole process. But best of all, now I’ve got a car I look forward to driving instead of one that gives me a headache.

PADDLE ME
At SCM we often cast a wary eye toward new supercars, finding them hugely capable but often with about as much personality as an Acura on steroids.

I got my comeuppance last week when I spent two long days behind the wheel of a Lamborghini Gallardo Spyder. SCM’s VP of Finance and Marketing, Wendie Standish, and I were in Los Angeles to attend the Petersen Museum’s annual fund raising gala, which this year paid tribute to SCMer Bruce Meyer and designer Chip Foose.

The Gallardo was a revelation. First, it was sized right, without the bulbous look of the Murcielago or even the Ferrari F430. The power-assisted steering is crisp, and the car has a go-kart feel to it, being sure-footed in all circumstances.

When the Gallardo coupe debuted, I found the styling minimalist for a Lamborghini. But over time it has settled into an “urban chic” look, even more so with the convertible. Unlike the BMW Z4, a design that looks more contrived and unsuccessful by the day, the Gallardo maintains a fresh aggressiveness that is wearing well.

In the past, I have viewed paddle shifters as a thumb-operated crutch for those too lazy or incapable of working a shift lever and three pedals simultaneously. No longer. While the fully automatic mode of the Gallardo in both standard and sport results in long pauses between shifts, in manual paddle mode the six-speed gearbox is terrific.

The gear changes are crisp and nearly instantaneous. The computer-driven “blipping” of the throttle that accompanies downshifting seemed odd at first, but after a few miles I began to look for underpasses where I could flick the paddle and get an echoed burst of sound from the engine.

Daytona coupes and Gallardo Spyders are both hovering in the $200,000 range, and as I crawled through the horrendous L.A. stop-and-go traffic, I thought about how the Daytona would have behaved. Ponderous steering, an oven-like interior, and a temperature gauge that would surely be headed toward bad places come to mind. Then the plugs would start to foul. And with enough starts and stops, I could probably get the clutch to start slipping as well.
By the end of the second day in the Lambo, I was already doing the mental calculations concerning monthly lease payments. Aside from a minor glitch with the fuel filler cap release (even the Germans can’t get all the Italian out of a Lamborghini), all systems worked flawlessly.

In the past, Lambos have been expensive automotive jewelry that seemed to spend as much time on the back of flat-bed wreckers as they did being driven. Unreliable to an extreme, they also featured user-cruel ergonomics and uber-trendy designs that had a visual shelf life of about ten minutes.

With VW taking Lamborghini under its wing, the resultant combination of German attention to detail and Italian flair has led to that most unusual of combinations: a supercar that is as comfortable idling on the freeways of L.A. as it is redlining on Old Topanga Canyon Road.

— Keith Martin
Sports Car Market magazine
www.sportscarmarket.com

 

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